Journey to the center of an editorial controversy: the doubt about Céline's "unpublished"

About to begin the summer of 1944 Louis-Ferdinand Céline hastily left his home in Montmartre heading into exile. Author of three violent anti-Semitic pamphlets and favorable to the Nazi government, Céline boarded a train at the Gare de l'Est in the direction of Baden-Baden. From there he would travel to the German castle of Sigmaringen, destination of the main figures of the French Vichy regime around Marshal Pétain. In fleeing from him, the novelist left behind a pile of notes, letters and manuscripts, which were lost after his release and whose "theft" Céline would not stop denouncing until his death in 1961.

A literary treasure disappeared until June 2020, when the journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat contacted the author's heirs and announced his willingness to return 5,300 manuscript pages that had been entrusted to him. Thibaudat then did not want to divulge the identity of the people who gave him the pages – a few weeks ago he explained that it was the family of Yvon Morandat, a prominent member of the Resistance and former Secretary of State of Georges Pompidou – and also set some conditions for their return. , which led to a brief legal battle, after which the manuscripts were delivered to the author's family.

It was then made public that the salvaged pages included an unpublished novel called London, the complete manuscript of Casse-pipe—published unfinished in 1949—and a Celtic legend called The Will of King Krogold, plus a thousand new pages of Death on Credit. These last ones were donated to the National Library of France (BNF) to cover the expenses of succession; the rest are the exclusive possession of the heirs who entrusted their publication to the Gallimard publishing house.

Access to the manuscripts has been limited to a select few who work on their transcription and editing. This spring saw the light of Céline's first unpublished in more than half a century, a story to which the editors attribute the title Guerre. A work that Gallimard has promoted as "unpublished novel", a qualification that several specialists question. The initial edition was of 80,000 copies -since then it has sold more than 150,000-, four times more than the one dedicated last year to The seventy-five folios, Marcel Proust's unpublished work.

"It seems clear to me that the legitimate owners and the Gallimard publishing house have given priority to their economic interests, to the detriment of scientific rigor", summarizes Pierluigi Pellini, co-author of a published article at the Institut des textes et manuscrits modernes (Item) in which he argues that Guerre is not an autonomous novel, but rather a draft of a discarded episode of Viaje al fin de la noche. "Somewhat understandable, since all of Céline's work will soon be in the public domain, in 2031."

Guerre is both an account of the First World War and a chronicle of provincial France, inspired by the author's own experience. Rescued by the British, Ferdinand (Céline's alter ego) recovers in a town called Peurdu-sur-la-Lys, a literary projection of Hazebrouck, the border town with Belgium where Céline recovered from a wound in his arm. "I learned to make music, to sleep, to forgive and, as you can see, also to make beautiful literature with bits of horror torn from that noise that will never end," says the narrator in the first pages.

Actually the existence of a novel entitled Guerre rests on the mention in two letters of Céline. Written in July 1934, the writer states in his correspondence that the first volume of Death on Credit should consist of three parts: the hero's childhood, his experience in the war and his stay in London. However, this work, published in 1936, interrupts his account before 1914. According to Pierluigi Pellini, Guerre's project will become Casse-pipe and the third novel (London) will end up being Guignol's Band.

"There is a vicious circle here: as the publishers think these pages were written in 1934, they have given them an inappropriate title taken from a 1934 letter; as the book is now called Guerre, it must have been written in 1934," denounces Pellini, professor of Philology at the University of Siena.

In addition to the lack of a title in the manuscript, the researcher and his colleague, Giulia Mela, point out in the article that it is a truncated text, which begins with "not quite" —eliminated in Gallimard's publication— and a "10" at the top of the first sheet, suggesting the existence of nine previous chapters. According to these researchers, the most probable hypothesis, in the current state of knowledge, is that the six previous sequences belong to the preparation of Journey to the End of the Night, written in 1930-1931.

"In these drafts, in fact they are fragmentary drafts, it is not at all a complete novel, there are doubts about the names of characters and places that will be definitively named in Journey to the end of the night", says Pellini. "And I would add that Céline, in her correspondence, often refers to the drafts of Voyage that she discarded; and that the style of the so-called Guerre is a jumbled, uncertain style."

Actually, Guerre's publication raises questions for two reasons. One is the publication of a draft as a definitive work. "Many things can be denied about Céline, but not that he was a great worker. He never voluntarily published a first draft: it is in a way a betrayal," says Anne Simonin, a specialist in the figure of Céline, who maintains that the author benefited of a fraudulent amnesty upon his return to France to escape the confiscation of his property.

The second reason is the problem of chronology. "From my point of view, in the current state of information, it is impossible to establish a 'scientific' date for Guerre, but certainly the objections raised by the Italian researchers deserve to be taken into account and, where appropriate, refuted," he adds. Simonin.

"A serious study should have been carried out by an interdisciplinary team that could have established a rigorous critical apparatus, analyzing the ink and paper used," says Giulia Mela, co-author of the Item article with Pellini. "At the moment, we are forced to limit ourselves to a reproduction, at a price of 160 euros, which does not even offer a material description of the manuscript. All researchers should have access to the recovered manuscripts by donating these materials to archives such as the BNF or the Institut Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine, as Jean-Pierre Thibaudat wanted".

In the meantime, Ferdinand's adventures will continue to hit bookstores: a new novel, London, will be published in Gallimard this fall. At the same time, the entirety of The Will of King Krogold will be released, a Celtic legend of which only a few passages included in Death on Credit were known. And, in 2023, the complete version of Casse-pipe should be published, as well as a review of the novelist's anthologies. Six decades after his death, Louis-Ferdinand Céline triumphs again in bookstores and, incidentally, also returns to the center of controversy.

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